By TOM CANAVAN
AP Sports Writer
EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. (AP) — Seeing TE Jake Ballard talking to a couple of reporters, New York Giants defensive captain Justin Tuck didn't hesitate to add to the conversation.
"Fantasy Savior," Tuck said as he headed off to the shower after practice on Monday.
While Ballard laughed about his new importance to fantasy league players, the truth is that the first-year player has become somewhat of a savior for the Giants (4-2) after losing veteran TE Kevin Boss to free agency before the season.
Not only is the former Ohio State product filling Boss' role as a blocker, he has stunned almost everyone by catching 15 passes for 273 yards in six games. He has had 11 catches for 186 yards and both of his touchdowns in New York's last three games. His 18.2-yard average is second best on the team and it made him a go-to guy for Eli Manning in recent weeks.
Offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride is as stunned as anyone. He called Ballard, who spent most of last season on the Giants' practice squad, the team's biggest surprise on offense.
The ability to block was expected. No one had any idea how well Ballard would be as a receiver since the Buckeyes rarely threw him the ball.
"I thought he would catch the ball well. I didn't see a guy that would be as effective as he has been running routes down the field but he has done a nice job," Gilbride said. "I think that it is attributed to him being a bright kid and he is able to assimilate what we talk to him about in meetings and use it on the field. Not everybody can learn as quickly as he has. He has adjusted to the flight of the ball much better than we have ever seen because we never threw the ball to him down the field in practice like that.
"He has made some terrific catches."
The best was a back-of-the-end-zone, fourth-quarter catch against the Cardinals that helped rally the Giants to a 31-27 win, a game in which he also had another TD reversed because he was tackled just short of the endzone on a 10-yard pass.
The son of a high school football coach, Ballard spent the bye week back home with his parents in Springboro, Ohio, a suburb near Cincinnati, trying to keep everything low key. His parents told him about Gilbride's comment and it seems to have fueled his fire.
Ballard also understands that opposing teams are going to start to pay more attention to him.
"It's not like they are going to double team me and leave Hakeem (Nicks) one on one or Mario (Manningham) or even Vic (Victor Cruz)," Ballard said. "I think this can be a pretty consistent thing all year. We just have so many threats on offense, it's hard to defend us."
Once Boss signed with Oakland, most felt that third-year pro Travis Beckum would become the No. 1 target at tight end. However, he suffered a couple of nagging injuries in training camp.
It got to the point where most experts felt that the Giants' starting tight end would eventually be a player who was cut by another team in final roster moves. The thought was that Ballard and Bear Pascoe weren't good enough.
"Bear's mom used to send him clips that would talk about me and him and who are they going to get and they really need to bring someone else in," Ballard said. "Me and him knew what we could do and it was fuel for the fire. It made us play with a chip on our shoulder."
Tight ends coach Mike Pope, who has directed Mark Bavaro and Jeremy Shockey with the Giants, said Ballard impressed him last season on the practice squad.
"He reminds me a lot of Jeremy Shockey in this aspect: When he comes off the field, he can tell you what everyone was doing around him on the play," Pope said of Ballard. "He has a really good feel of what is going on around him and Jeremy was the same way."
Manning said Ballard knows how to find the open areas on the field. Opponents also have helped, the quarterback said.
"Sometimes you split him out," he said, "and the corner has the tight end and thinks they are not going to throw to the tight end out here and they leave him."
Veteran safety Antrel Rolle said Ballard is a "sneak-up kind of guy."
"His speed is deceptive," Rolle said. "His hands are remarkable. I give him the nickname 'Clutch.' He has been that guy in clutch situations that has made things happen for us. He's been very, very consistent, which is the best thing you can take from Ballard's game."
While unaware of his nickname, Ballard likes it.
"I think I 'sneak-up' on the secondary because I'm not 'slow-slow,' but I move faster than I look," Ballard said. "That's what I think catches people off guard, especially …"
Ballard never finished the statement. That's when Tuck walked past and made his fantasy comment.
"He was joking the other day (against Buffalo on Oct. 16) in the game at halftime," Ballard said. "He's like: 'Man, I'm going to have to create a fantasy team and I'm going to pick you up at tight end.'"
When Ballard made a catch at practice on Monday, Tuck continued to tease him.
"Fantasy Savior! Jake Ballard," Ballard recalled hearing. "Though I don't keep up too much with that stuff."
For the record, for those who do, Ballard was the third-most acquired tight end in the CBS Sports fantasy leagues after the Giants defeated Buffalo 27-24.
NOTES: WR Ramses Barden, who has been on the physically-unable-to-perform list all season, practiced for the first time on Monday. The Giants now have three weeks to activate him, put him on injured reserve or release him. ... C Adam Koets remained on the PUP list because of a back problem. He was put originally put on the list because of a knee injury. ... Rookie CB Prince Amukamara (broken foot) expects to find out later this week whether he will be active for Sunday's game against Miami.
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